Thorkell the Tall

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The rune stone U 344 in Orkesta, Uppland, Sweden, was raised by the Viking Ulfr who commemorated that he had taken a danegeld in England with Thorkell the Tall. He took two others with Skagul Toste and Cnut the Great. U 344, Orkesta.JPG
The rune stone U 344 in Orkesta, Uppland, Sweden, was raised by the Viking Ulfr who commemorated that he had taken a danegeld in England with Thorkell the Tall. He took two others with Skagul Toste and Cnut the Great.
Storm in Hjorungavag by Gerhard Munthe Olav Trygvasons saga - Uvaeret, Hjoerungavaag - G. Munthe.jpg
Storm in Hjørungavåg by Gerhard Munthe

Thorkell the Tall, also known as Thorkell the High in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Old Norse: Þorke(ti)ll inn hávi; Norwegian : Torkjell Høge; Swedish: Torkel Höge; Danish : Torkild den Høje), was a prominent member of the Jomsviking order and a notable lord. He was a son of the Scanian chieftain Strut-Harald, and a brother of Jarl Sigvaldi, Hemingr and Tófa. [1] Thorkell was the chief commander of the Jomvikings and the legendary stronghold Jomsborg, on the Island of Wollin.[ citation needed ] He is also credited as having received the young Cnut the Great into his care and taken Cnut on raids. [2] In the Encomium Emmae, a document aimed at the movers and shakers of the Anglo-Scandinavian court in the early 1040s, describes Thorkell as a great war leader and warrior. [3]

<i>Anglo-Saxon Chronicle</i> Set of related medieval English chronicles

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a collection of annals in Old English chronicling the history of the Anglo-Saxons. The original manuscript of the Chronicle was created late in the 9th century, probably in Wessex, during the reign of Alfred the Great. Multiple copies were made of that one original and then distributed to monasteries across England, where they were independently updated. In one case, the Chronicle was still being actively updated in 1154.

Norwegian language North Germanic language spoken in Norway

Norwegian is a North Germanic language spoken mainly in Norway, where it is the official language. Along with Swedish and Danish, Norwegian forms a dialect continuum of more or less mutually intelligible local and regional varieties; some Norwegian and Swedish dialects, in particular, are very close. These Scandinavian languages, together with Faroese and Icelandic as well as some extinct languages, constitute the North Germanic languages. Faroese and Icelandic are not mutually intelligible with Norwegian in their spoken form because continental Scandinavian has diverged from them. While the two Germanic languages with the greatest numbers of speakers, English and German, have close similarities with Norwegian, neither is mutually intelligible with it. Norwegian is a descendant of Old Norse, the common language of the Germanic peoples living in Scandinavia during the Viking Era.

Swedish language North Germanic language spoken in Sweden

Swedish is a North Germanic language spoken natively by 10 million people, predominantly in Sweden, and in parts of Finland, where it has equal legal standing with Finnish. It is largely mutually intelligible with Norwegian and to some extent with Danish, although the degree of mutual intelligibility is largely dependent on the dialect and accent of the speaker. Written Norwegian and Danish are usually more easily understood by Swedish speakers than the spoken languages, due to the differences in tone, accent and intonation. Swedish is a descendant of Old Norse, the common language of the Germanic peoples living in Scandinavia during the Viking Era. It has the most speakers of the North Germanic languages. While being strongly related to its southern neighbour language German in vocabulary, the word order, grammatic system and pronunciation are vastly different.


Thorkell notably partook in a campaign that saw him lead a great Viking army to Kent in 1009, where they proceeded to overrun most of Southern England. [4] This soon culminated in the Siege of Canterbury in 1011 and the kidnapping of archbishop Ælfheah, who had previously converted Olaf Tryggvason, [5] and his subsequent murder at Greenwich on 19 April 1012. [4]

Kent County of England

Kent is a county in South East England and one of the home counties. It borders Greater London to the north-west, Surrey to the west and East Sussex to the south-west. The county also shares borders with Essex along the estuary of the River Thames, and with the French department of Pas-de-Calais through the Channel Tunnel. The county town is Maidstone.

1009 Year

Year in topic Year 1009 (MIX) was a common year starting on Saturday of the Julian calendar.

Southern England Place in England

Southern England, or the South of England, also known as the South, refers roughly to the southern counties of England. The extent of this area can take a number of different interpretations depending on the context, including geographical, cultural, political and economic.


Thorkell is a historical figure, but his career, especially its early part, is steeped in associations with the legendary Jomsvikings. Thorkell took part in the Battle of Hjörungavágr in 986 and in the Battle of Swold in 1000.

Battle of Hjörungavágr battle

The Battle of Hjörungavágr is a semi-legendary naval battle that took place in the late 10th century between the Jarls of Lade and a Danish invasion fleet led by the fabled Jomsvikings. This battle played an important role in the struggle by Haakon Sigurdsson to unite his rule over Norway. Traditionally, the battle has been set during the year 986.

In August 1009, a large Danish army led by Thorkell the Tall landed on the shores of Sandwich. They first marched towards the city of Canterbury but were promptly paid 3000 pounds of silver by the people of Kent to sway the army from attacking. [6] [7] They instead turned towards London and attempted to take the city several times, but were met with heavy resistance and ultimately abandoned their attack. [7] [8]

Sandwich, Kent town in Kent, England

Sandwich is a historic town and civil parish on the River Stour in the non-metropolitan district of Dover, within the ceremonial county of Kent, south-east England. It has a population of 4,985. Sandwich was one of the Cinque Ports and still has many original medieval buildings, including several listed public houses and gates in the old town walls, churches, almshouses and the White Mill. While once a major port, it is now two miles from the sea due to the disappearance of the Wantsum Channel. Its historic centre has been preserved. Sandwich Bay is home to nature reserves and two world-class golf courses, Royal St George's and Prince's. The town is also home to many educational and cultural events. Sandwich also gave its name to the food by way of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, and the word sandwich is now found in several languages.

On 8 September 1011 the Viking army returned to Canterbury and besieged the city for three weeks, eventually taking it through the treachery of a man named Ælfmaer, whose life had been previously saved by the archbishop of Canterbury, Ælfheah. [7] Thorkell and his men occupied Canterbury and took several hostages of importance, including Ælfheah himself, who was held prisoner for seven months. During the captivity, Ælfheah seems to have taken the opportunity to convert as many of the Vikings as possible to Christianity prompting tension. [3] The Vikings demanded an extra 3000 pounds of silver for the release of the archbishop, [5] but Ælfheah bravely refused to be ransomed or have his people pay the invaders. As a consequence, Ælfheah was murdered by Thorkell's men during a drunken feast at Greenwich on 19 April 1012 - the Vikings pelted him with the bones of cattle before one Viking finished him off with a blow to the back of the head with the butt of an axe. Thorkell was said to have tried his best to prevent the death of the archbishop, offering the attackers everything he possessed to stop the killing, save for his ship. [9] And someone, possibly Thorkell, is said to have carried the corpse to London the day after the murder. [3] Thorkell's army eventually ceased their attacks across Southern England, but only after a large series of danegeld payments were made, eventually culminating to 48,000 pounds of silver. [4] [9]

Greenwich town in south-east London, England

Greenwich is an area of South East London, England, located 5.5 miles (8.9 km) east-southeast of Charing Cross. It is located within the Royal Borough of Greenwich, to which it lends its name, and also within the historic county of Kent.

Danegeld Viking

The Danegeld was a tax raised to pay tribute to the Viking raiders to save a land from being ravaged. It was called the geld or gafol in eleventh-century sources. It was characteristic of royal policy in both England and Francia during the ninth through eleventh centuries, collected both as tributary, to buy off the attackers, and as stipendiary, to pay the defensive forces. The term Danegeld did not appear until the early twelfth century. In Anglo-Saxon England tribute payments to the Danes was known as gafol and the levy raised to support the standing army, for the defence of the realm, was known as heregeld (army-tax). Danegeld was mostly taken by the Norsemen from Denmark.

Disillusioned by the archbishop's murder, and sensing that he was losing control over his men, Thorkell and several other loyalists defected, taking 45 Viking ships with them. [5] [9] He and his men subsequently entered into the service of the English King Æthelred the Unready as mercenaries, of whom they fought under in 1013 against the invasion of Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. [10]

Æthelred the Unready King of the English

Æthelred II, known as the Unready, was King of the English from 978 to 1013 and again from 1014 until his death. His epithet does not derive from the modern word "unready", but rather from the Old English unræd meaning "poorly advised"; it is a pun on his name, which means "well advised".

Sweyn Forkbeard King of Denmark

Sweyn Forkbeard was king of Denmark from 986 to 1014. He was the father of King Harald II of Denmark, King Cnut the Great and Queen Estrid Svendsdatter.

Cnut the Great 10th and 11th-century King of Denmark, Norway, and England

Cnut the Great, also known as Canute, whose father was Sweyn Forkbeard, was King of Denmark, England and Norway; together often referred to as the North Sea Empire. Yet after the deaths of his heirs within a decade of his own, and the Norman conquest of England in 1066, this legacy was lost. He is popularly invoked in the context of the legend of King Canute and the tide, which often misrepresents him as a deluded monarch believing he has supernatural powers, contrary to the original legend which portrays a wise king who rebuked his courtiers for their fawning behaviour.

After the death of Edmund Ironside on 30 November 1016, Cnut became king of England and he divided the country into four earldoms - making Thorkell the jarl of East Anglia. [11] [12] It is unknown how Thorkell fell into Cnut's services, especially considering the former's role in opposing Cnut and his father's invasion of England in 1013, but it is assumed that Cnut considered him a valuable asset and powerful ally. [11] Given the Jomsvikings' role in political events in Scandinavia, the possibility exists that Thorkell played a masterminding role in assisting with Sveyn Forkbeard's 1013 invasion and Cnut's re-invasion a few years later. [13]

In 1021, for unknown reasons, Thorkell is very briefly described as falling out with Cnut, with the former being banished by the king and returning to Denmark. [14] [12] However, Cnut later reconciled with Thorkell in 1023, seemingly aware of the strong connections and influence he had in his home country and that he was too powerful a man to be made an enemy of. [14] As a result, he was granted the earldom of Denmark and given custody of Cnut's son Harthacnut, to whom Thorkell would serve as foster-father. [14] [12] Thorkell's rule was a short one, with Cnut's brother-in-law Ulf the Earl to become Jarl of Denmark a year later. [15] [14] The perceived power vacuum [3] of Thorkell's unexplained absence after 1023 and the commitment of Cnut in England, prompted King Olaf II of Norway and King Anund Jacob of Sweden to launch attacks on the Danish in the Baltic Sea. The Swedish and Norwegian navies led by kings Anund Jacob and Olaf II lay in wait up the river for the navy of King Cnut, which was commanded by Danish earl Ulf Jarl. Now known as the Battle of Helgeå, the decisive victory left Cnut the dominant leader in Scandinavia.

While there is no mention of Thorkell after 1023, and he seems to have disappeared from the historical record, [12] suggestions that he died in Battle in 1039 [16] would place him at a great age in 1039 if indeed he was of fighting age at the Battle of Hjörungavágr in 986. However, if he was only present rather than fighting in the ranks, as some sources suggest, he could have been as young as 15 in 986 - making him around 68 in 1039. As legendary in death as he was in life, theories abound as to Thorkell's fate: maybe he was cast out of the kingdom to return to Jomsborg or Scania. Alternatively, he may have died soon after he was made Jarl of Denmark, presumably in 1024. [17] He may have been chased down by an angry mob or he was simply too old for any more conflict; the Jomsvikings were known to have men serving in the fighting ranks of age 18 to 50. With no military commands, the final years of his life could have been spent at court or on his estates.

It should not be forgotten that Thorkell was the son of Strut-Harald and as such was an eminent nobleman of Scania and celebrated in his life time by the poets and on Runestones for his exploits. No doubt he would have had significant influence, renown and contacts throughout Anglo-Scandinavia. Thorkell's proven shrewd nature and wisdom were well documented. [3] The sometimes contradictory contemporary literature of the Encomium Emmae has Thorkell as being in service of, rather than the threat to, Cnut and Harthacnut's authority. [3] This would lend credence to the idea that he returned to Denmark in 1021 to prepare the way for Ulf, Cnut's brother-in-law, to take-over governing after 1023. The use of the term 'exile' at the time recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle meant being abroad as well as social punishment, and exile was often used as a political tool that consciously or otherwise contributed to shaping Anglo-Saxon society, [18] it was not necessarily indicative of a fall out with the King. Harthacnut, when aged around 21, joined his mother in Bruges in 1040. A reunion prior to travelling to England and coming soon after the possible loss of his childhood mentor Thorkell in 1039. As mentioned above, into whose care Harthacnut had been entrusted following Cnut's and Thorkell's meeting in Denmark during 1023. Indeed, one of Thorkell's sons was a prominent member of Harthacnut's retinue and it is not until after the collapse and subsequent death of Harthacnut, at the wedding feast of Tovi the Proud, that Thorkell's wife and two sons were expelled from England. This was possibly linked to the intrigue that surrounded Magnus the Good's letter of intention to invade the realm of Edward the Confessor, with the ambition to reunite the kingdoms of what is now described as the North Sea Empire.

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  15. Gabriel Turville-Petre. The Heroic Age of Scandinavia. London: Greenwood Press. p. 156. ISBN   0-8371-8128-3.
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  18. White, William Roy. "A Discourse of Exile: Representations of Restored Royal Exiles in Anglo-Saxon England". White Rose eTheses online.

Further reading


Logo for Nordisk familjeboks uggleupplaga.png This article contains content from the Owl Edition of Nordisk familjebok, a Swedish encyclopedia published between 1904 and 1926, now in the public domain.

Preceded by
Ulfcytel Snillingr
Earl of East Anglia
Succeeded by